Wow, scathing Boris Becker article:
June 05, 2005
Tennis: The Big Interview: Boris Becker: Holding Court
The once golden boy has enjoyed good times and survived bad
(type Boris Becker is Search box for direct link)
In the dream, 37-year-old Boris Franz Becker finds himself being escorted through the gates of Heaven by St Peter on Judgment Day. His first glimpse of paradise is exactly how he imagined it would be: Wimbledon in the sky; a magnificent centre court filled with all of his favourite people on a sunny, cloudless day. “So this is it,” he smiles, as his pulse begins to race. “Match point for eternity.”
But instead of being ushered through the players’ entrance, he is led underground to a giant auditorium.
The Lord is sitting in an umpire’s chair beneath a giant plasma screen and a box of DVDs. “I haven’t quite made up my mind about you yet, Boris,” he announces sternly. “Which of these highlights of your life do you suggest we watch first?” “I don’t know,” Becker replies nervously. “Maybe the winter of 1974.”
The screen flickers into life with black-and-white images of a small German town near Heidelberg called Leimen and a devout but scrawny-looking altar boy holding up the Bible for the parish priest during a Sunday mass.
“Don’t you remember? That’s me,” Becker says. “I served as a ministrant for years. My family never missed church on Sundays. Thou shall keep holy the sabbath day.”
“Indeed,” the Lord smiles. “Okay, what’s next?” “What about the spring of 1986?” Colour images of the Vatican City appear on the screen. It’s a year after Becker’s first Wimbledon triumph and he is kneeling before the Pope, John Paul II, with the racket he used to defeat Kevin Curren in the final. “You should have heard the flak I took for having my racket blessed, Lord,” Becker says. “They said it was a cheap publicity stunt for my sponsors and conveniently ignored how important my faith and the audience with Johannes Paul was for me. Thou shall not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.”
“Very good Boris, what’s next?” “What about the autumn of 2003?” A giant map of the United States appears on the screen. A small hole begins to burn in the city of Miami and we are zoomed into a lavish home on the South Beach where a man is reading a bedtime story to two boys. The man is Boris Becker. The boys are his sons, Noah and Elias. The book is a heavy children’s Bible.
And Moses raised his staff and looked up to the sky. All at once a wind appeared that became a storm and the sea began to part...
“A few years after my first son was born, Lord,” Becker explains, “he wanted to know how we chose his name and so I bought a children’s Bible and began reading him the story of Noah’s Ark. I believed in raising my children as I had been raised.”
“Well done, Boris, you’re nearly there.”
“Okay, what about the summer of 1999?” The screen flickers with an image of a man sitting at the bar of a fashionable restaurant in London. His mind is in turmoil. He has been arguing with his pregnant wife, Barbara, all evening and knows he should have accompanied her when she left for the hospital with labour pains. He is also feeling sorry for himself: his career as a professional tennis player ended that afternoon on the centre court at Wimbledon and he hasn’t quite figured what comes next.
It’s getting late now. The kitchen has closed. He orders a lemon sorbet in vodka from the bar and a glass of white wine. A pretty girl walks by and flashes him a smile that he doesn’t need to interpret. Twenty minutes later, she sashays by the bar again on her way to the rest rooms and he pushes back his chair and decides to intercept.
The camera follows them to a quiet corner of the restaurant where they are snatching at each other’s clothes like two crazed animals. The Lord shuffles uneasily in his seat.
“Are you sure about this, Boris?” Becker’s eyes never leave the screen.
The mating scene is captured in all of its brief and gory detail. The Lord’s kindly features are transformed into a thunderous rage. “YOU CANNOT BE SERIOUS, BORIS,” he fumes. “DO YOU WANT TO GO STRAIGHT TO HELL?! PETER! TURN IT OFF NOW!” “I’m sorry Lord,” Becker pleads. “It was a confusing time in my life, a really bad day at the office but please, let it run. I’d like you to see what happens next.”
A FRIDAY afternoon at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Munich. You march into reception with ten minutes to spare, expecting to find him locked away in a luxurious suite with an army of assistants and minders but there he is, in plain view, the most famous sportsman in Germany, sitting quietly in the lobby with just his mobile phone for company.
“I’m sorry,” you announce, by way of introduction. “I’m normally much earlier than this.”
“That’s okay,” he replies, “I had some business calls to make. Would you like a drink?” “Yes, coffee would be lovely.”
He’s wearing jeans, a brown leather jacket, his trademark spiky hair and a face that looks like its been scrubbed with a Brillo pad. “I was out with some friends last night and we got back late,” he explains. Curiously nervous, you reach into your bag and fumble for a tape recorder. It slips from your grasp and the contents — a ton of notes, a copy of his autobiography, three pens, four spare tapes and a packet of spare batteries — spill onto the table in an untidy pile.
“Why don’t we have a drink first,” he suggests, “and discuss how we are going to do this?” “Okay, fine,” you reply, mortified that you’ve created the impression that it’s your very first time. It’s his aura that throws you; the ring of greatness; the air of a star. You don’t really get a sense of it watching him on TV but, face to face, it seeps from his every pore.
“I was fascinated by this on a number of levels,” I announce, replacing his book in my bag. “There are no photographs?” “No,” he replies.
“Why not?” “Because I don’t know how many millions of photographs have been taken of me and I didn’t want any in the book. An autobiography is not about pictures; it’s about the stories behind the pictures; it’s about honesty and as much truth as you can tell without coming too close to other people’s privacy.”
“So why did you need two ghost writers to write it?” “Well,” he smiles. “Like most things in my life, that’s a little bit complicated. First of all, it took three-and-a-half years from when we first started to when we reached the finish line. The first writer (Helmut Sorge) was very friendly and close to my ex-wife but then a few things happened that meant we would have to stop for a while. The publishing company trusted me but the writer didn ’t really understand and, when I was ready to start again, it seemed better to get a first eyewitness, Robert Lubenoff, who was close to me.”
“You say a few things happened? You mean the birth of your daughter Anna?” “Yes, and my divorce and the court date for my tax problems.”
The interview is barely five minutes old and already he is smashing volleys across the net.
IN THAT fine anthology of his work, The Bases Were Loaded, the American sportswriter Tom Callahan tells a wonderful story about a working vacation to London in the summer of 1985. Every morning before heading off to report on the first week’s play at Wimbledon, Callahan breakfasted with his wife at the “Apple Something Cafe”, just around the corner from the Gloucester Hotel. And every morning, because space was tight, they invited this big German kid with peach fuzz and orange hair to share a table with them.
“Our chance meeting,” Callahan writes, “was a testament to what a rotten reporter I am. He fell in with us three or four straight days. I never asked Becker a single question about the tournament. I knew Becker as a hard server who had broken his leg in Wimbledon’s juniors the year before.
“Becker’s English was slight. His manner was warm. I was astounded and delighted that he survived the first week of the fortnight. After that, of course, when the whole world wanted to ask him things, he vanished.”
Becker was 17 years and 200 days old when he arrived in London that summer. He couldn’t drive, didn’t drink beer and his mother sent him toothpaste because she was worried about his teeth. He was a boy living his dream.
“I lost in the second round of the French Open,” he says, “and came over immediately and had ten days off. I went to the Hard Rock Cafe for lunch and had a big burger and coke. I would go through some stores and buy some music and jeans and everyday stuff. It was exciting to be away from my parents, to stay in a hotel, to have that freedom. And hotels at 17 meant freedom.
“The most fascinating thing for me was that I was in the tennis bubble. I wasn’t thinking about the big picture. I didn’t notice what they said on television, I wasn’t reading any papers. I had a coach (Gunther Bosch) and a manager (Ion Tiriac) and they kept me in the bubble. I was eating at the same Italian every night and playing one match at a time. It was only after I won that my life changed.”
Becker was a global superstar with two Wimbledon titles when Callahan caught up with him again in 1987: six books had already been published about him and he was conducting 250 press conferences a year.
Callahan had travelled to Rome for an interview which, like all one-to-ones with Becker, would be restricted to the lobby of his hotel. But Becker had a good memory and immediately invited the writer upstairs to his room.
The boy had grown an inch or three since their last meeting and was slowly coming to terms with fame. “It’s silly to say it about a tennis player,” he told Callahan, “but I’m an unbelievable hero in Germany. And Germany needs heroes more than any place.
“Some of it I don’t care for. The eyes of some of the fans at Davis Cup matches scare me. There’s no light in them. Fixed emotions. Blind worship. Horror. It makes me think of what happened to us long ago.
“And yet I want to be a hero, a small and good kind of hero, even though I know heroes have very short lives.”
Did he achieve his goal? Was he a good kind of hero? Well, strip away the Aryan supremacy and arrogance he strutted on court and there was no disguising a pretty decent human being. But it wasn’t easy. “All those girls: hysterical, crazy, waiting for hours for him outside hotels,” Gunther Bosch, his coach, once observed. “Is it fair to do this to a child? How can he find out what’s real and what’s a sham?” “When I was a child,” Becker says, “I had these posters of James Dean in my room. I was a big admirer of his work — well his three-and-a-half films or whatever it was — and was fascinated by him living on the edge, the edge being the line between life and death. Looking back, my life was kind of the same.
“When you are thrown onto the stage at 17 in such an enormous way, it becomes living on the edge because every step you take, every word you speak, every action you do becomes headline news. And so it became, for me, life or death.”
In 1989, after winning his third Wimbledon, Becker was growing tired of the bubble and began a quest for a title still eluding him: happiness. Tiriac, his manager, didn’t understand.
“You’re young, you have scores of women knocking on your door. What more do you want?” “Substance Ion,” Becker replied. “Some meaning to it all.”
Two years later he found it. Her name was Barbara. “I had just won my third Wimbledon and had the best year of my career but after five or six years on the treadmill, internally and emotionally, I was turning into a basket case,” he says. “Girls had never been important. I’d had a girlfriend or two and had liked them a lot but it wasn’t love, because my first love was tennis.
“But where do you go when you’re the best in the world? What’s next? I started to focus on my personal wellbeing; I wanted to find out what it was like to be in love. Before, I wouldn’t have sacrificed anything for tennis but when I met Barbara it was different. I would have sacrificed tennis for Barbara.”
Barbara Feltus, a model and aspiring actress, was the daughter of an African-American serviceman and a white German woman. They met in Munich in 1991 and married two years later after a whirlwind courtship that stirred a lot of racist hate. Germans were shocked when they posed nude on the cover of the weekly magazine Stern, but the Beckers didn’t flinch.
In 1992, when invited to become an ambassador for Berlin’s bid to host the 2000 Olympic Games, he declined on the grounds that it might stir old fantasies about a master race. He joined Amnesty International and supported squatters in Hamburg. He achieved his goal and became “a good kind of hero”.
But if only they lived longer lives...
“ALCOHOL is like love,” the American author Raymond Chandler once noted. “The first kiss is magic, the second is intimate, the third is routine. After that you take the girl’s clothes off.”
Becker had been drinking on the night that he denuded Angela Ermakova, but he certainly wasn’t drunk. Had he not interpreted the signal clearly when the Russian model had smiled at the bar? Had he not followed her lead upstairs with precise, unwavering steps? And does a drunk ever recall his words or deeds of drunkenness? Becker did. He opened his eyes at the Conrad Hotel in Chelsea next morning and thought: ‘You f***ing idiot Boris! No condom! Who was she? That was very, very stupid.’ But within hours he had erased the girl from his mind.
Barbara was released that morning from hospital; her labour pains of the night before had been a false alarm. They packed their suitcases and returned that evening to Germany and, for the next eight months, Becker lived as normal a life as it is possible to live when your marriage is unravelling and you’ve just retired.
“People are supposed to be 60 when they make a decision like that,” he explains. “I was 31! It was unknown territory for me and I was vulnerable. ‘How am I going to react? Will I go to pieces? Will I ever find anything to satisfy me again?’ That’s the hard part about sport: as men we haven’t started to be in our prime but as athletes we are old people. I needed support, I needed her (Barbara’s) backbone but I didn’t get it and lost trust and did stupid things.”
One morning, in Munich, his secretary handed him a fax. It was from a Russian model reminding him of a stupid thing.
“Dear Mr. Becker, we met a little while ago at Nobu in London. The result of our meeting is now in its eighth month.”
“Impossible,” he scoffed, tossing the fax away. “I don’t remember any of this.”
But the truth began to gnaw at him like an acute pain in the guts. He was forced to dial the number.
“I don’t know what your game is but this is impossible,” he fumed.
“Well maybe it is,” Ermakova replied. “But I’m eight months’ pregnant.”
“It can’t be mine.”
“Believe me Boris, in a month’s time your child will be born.”
He responded by calling his lawyers. She responded by calling the press. The fall-out made headlines all around the world and Becker’s life entered a tailspin that would last for almost a year.
“I handled it badly,” he says. “I met with my lawyers and they gave me all the wrong advice and for a long time I refused to accept the child was mine. I should have met her, arranged a DNA test and accepted my responsibility.”
“How tough was it when she decided to go public?” I ask. “It was unimaginable,” he replies. “Scary. People had been waiting a long time for this. I had beaten a lot of players in my time and being beaten in tennis is not the same as being beaten in football. Tennis is one-to-one combat — you physically, mentally and emotionally beat the other guy. And when you’ve done that for 15 years it creates a lot of resentment. I knew what they were thinking: ‘One day, Becker, you son of a bitch, we’ll get your ass.’ And this was the moment. They got my ass.”
HOW do you come back from something like that? Where do you begin when people look at you in the street and their first thought is not “Boom Boom Becker” the Wimbledon champion, but “Wham Bam Becker” the broom-cupboard man? How do you respect the broom-cupboard woman? How do you build a relationship with her when you’ve hardly shared a word but suddenly share a child? How do you love a daughter you don’t see for nearly two years? When does she become your daughter? How does she become your daughter? What do you say when she arrives home crying because of what they’ve been saying in school? “Is it true, Dad? A broom cupboard? Is that how it was?” Does it matter? Does anyone ask their parents how they are conceived? We have moved upstairs to a quiet table in the restaurant and he is answering my queries as he tackled them — head on.
1. Wimbledon champion or broom-cupboard man? “To be honest I don’t really care what the man on the street thinks — I never did anything to please him in the first place and I’m not going to start now. The African-Americans think I’m their brother; the Germans think I’m their property; the Catholics think I’m their ministrant. I can’t please them. I have to live my life. I can’t change history, I don’t want to change history . I can only change the future. I’m working on that.”
2. Building a relationship with Ermakova, the mother of his child.
“Five years ago, when the legal stuff was going on, and we were bitching all the time, it was difficult but there was no option: we had sex, the result of that sex was a child, so we had to move things on to a personal level and make it as good as it could be for the three of us. And for the past two-and-a-half years, we’ve found a way. I call her and say: “I’m coming to London, I’d like to see Anna.” We arrange a time, we talk and she gets me a beer or makes me tea. She’s doing the best she can. I’m doing the best I can. It takes two people.”
3. The moment your problem becomes your daughter.
“The first couple of times you don’t know how to react. She was a baby when I met her. I mean: what do you do with a one-year-old? I was very emotional with my boys. I attended the births and cut their navel cords and was very loving but she was a stranger to me and at first there was no emotional attachment.
“But life is beautiful and, gradually, after being with her many times you begin to feel. The first time it hit me was when she called me ‘Daddy’. She is very lively and ticklish, and I put her on my shoulders and we played around in a fatherly way. I believe she felt genuinely comfortable in my hands and that’s when the emotions started to set in.
4. The moment when he has to explain how she was conceived.
“Does it make a difference? I don’t think it does. It wasn’t as reported, it wasn’t in a broom cupboard, it was . . . well, let’s just say it was in a better place but no, I don’t think it’s important. My boys have never asked me: ‘How did you and Mummy make me?’ The important thing is that she is five years old now and I am really starting to love her and I’m convinced that we will soon have as good a relationship as I had with my boys.
“I believe that everything in life happens for a reason. It was my toughest ever lesson and I wasn’t sure if I’d come out of it but five years later all I can say is she’s great. I didn’t kill nobody; I didn’t **** no children; I had sex with a woman who wasn’t my wife and it was wrong, but I paid for it. I accepted my responsibility and turned the most embarrassing moment of my life into a beautiful thing. “I see it in the reaction of my kids, I see it in the reaction of Barbara, I see it in the reaction of Angela, of my sister and my other close friends — they have much more respect for me now then when I was the Wimbledon champion. I think even the man in the street can relate to me more. I’m not a God, I’m one of them. I make mistakes.”
THE waitress arrives with a fresh pot of coffee. The conversation has shifted to his night on the town and the strange things that happen whenever he enters a nightclub.
“It’s almost comical,” he smiles. “If I go into a club now all the blonde girls leave my corner and all the black girls come into my corner. It’s as if I’m racist towards white girls! For a year, I had all sorts of weirdos coming onto me: ‘Oh yeah, Boris, you’re one of us, we know what you like.’ “I said: ‘No, I’m not one of you, I don’t go to bed with strangers.’
People forget that it was something that happened in extraordinary circumstances. I had never done that before and I haven’t done it since.”
“What about love?” I ask. “Have you found anyone since your divorce?”
“No. Am I looking? No. I’m a different man now. I’m still a romantic, I still believe in love, but when I met Barbara I was looking for it. Now, I don’t know. I’ve had that experience. I have my kids. I know what it’s like to be married and to live in a house with a garden but it’s not something I’m striving for at the moment. I’m pretty content.”
Retirement has proved more fulfilling than he expected. A successful businessman, he’s on the board at Bayern Munich, owns a tennis company, three Mercedes car dealerships and has worked as a chat show host (“Becker One-to-One”) on the sports channel DSF for the past year.
But each morning, when he looks at himself in the mirror, it’s still a player that he sees. And it’s the player that will return to London this week for the Stella Artois Championships and an exhibition against John McEnroe — the first time the two have met on a grass court.
“I still feel like I’m a 17-year-old,” he says. “The suit-and-tie job is very nice but it’s not really who I am in my heart, especially when June comes along. I go to London, my favourite city in the world, and I feel at home.
My mother comes over and all my kids and the five weeks we spend together is always the best time of the year. “I go to my favourite tournament, I talk about my favourite sport and it’s just a great month of parading.” “And you enjoy parading?” “I enjoy being in my environment and if there is one environment I feel comfortable in it’s Wimbledon. Everybody knows me: the guards on the gate, the journalists, the chairman, the linesmen. I just feel very, very comfortable.”
The interview is drawing to a close. A photographer has arrived to take some pictures and Becker offers to buy us lunch. “Just give me a moment please to go to the bathroom,” he requests. “No problem,” I reply. “But if I’m not back in five minutes, come and get me.” His mouth explodes with an infectious guffaw. Nice one.